2023 Yom HaShoah event chairs, Dorothy and Michelle Goldwin with keynote speaker, Tova Friedman
By Shoshana Cenker
On Monday, April 17, more than 475 attendees packed the Memphis Jewish Community Center’s Belz Social Hall for Memphis Jewish Federation’s 61st Annual Yom HaShoah Commemoration. The Tennessee Holocaust Commission sponsored this year’s keynote speaker, child survivor Tova Friedman, for Courage & Hope: The Holocaust Through the Eyes of a Child.
Laura Linder, Jewish Community Partners president and CEO, opened the moving program, which was followed by a beautifully harmonized rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner by Temple Israel teens. Then, second-generation survivor Dorothy Goldwin and her daughter, Michelle Goldwin Kaufman, co-chairs of the Memphis Holocaust Committee, offered powerful remarks, part of which highlighted the importance of sharing family history knowledge from generation to generation.
Next, as third- and fourth-generation survivors, my three children and I had the honor of reading local survivors’ bios as they lit the memorial candelabra with the help of third-generation survivor Adam Exelbierd. Diane Zelickman Cohen, Memphis Symphony Orchestra assistant principal first violinist, then played a lovely musical reflection, setting the mood for Tova’s presentation.
The audience was captivated as Tova Friedman took the stage with a commanding and engaging presence, sharing startling stats: Before the war – there were 15,000 Jews in her Polish hometown of Tomaszow Mazowiecki; 5,000 of them were children – after the war, just 200 were left; only five children. Of her 150 family members, Tova and her parents were the only ones to survive. “Killing was an art,” Tova noted. “I represent a whole town. … Today, Poland is one giant place of graves.”
Living in her town’s ghetto as a toddler, Tova was 5 years old when she and her parents were sent to a Nazi labor camp. It’s believed that she’s one of the youngest people to survive the Holocaust. Tova credits her mother for not shielding her from reality. When Tova asked if the bodies she saw were dead people, her mom told her yes. “My mother communicated well with me. I learned to listen to her,” she said, “And I never cried out loud – that would give away your hiding place.”
Sadly, her grandparents were shot dead into a grave that her father was forced to dig. Her favorite uncle was shot, among many others – rabbis, teachers, and doctors were killed first – all most often without clothes on. “Shooting was so common, I thought being Jewish meant you had to die,” she told the engrossed crowd, which included Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris. “The Nazis killed the elderly to destroy families – killing the spirit and glue that holds families together…. They were ordered to undress before they were killed because clothes make you a human – it’s easier to kill naked people, there’s no humanity.”
Tova remembers seeing kids disappear and realizing that people were being moved from location to location, sometimes in secret, in the middle of the night. “Breaking up a family,” she said, “breaks their spirit.”
Tova was almost 6 when she and her mother were forced into a packed cattle car and sent to Auschwitz II, also known as Birkenau extermination camp, while her father was sent to Dachau. “We were on that train for 36 hours, with terrible smells and screaming,” Tova said. “When we arrived at the concentration camp, I asked my mom what the smell was. She told me it was burning bodies.”
Somehow, Tova managed to stay alive – despite being sent to the crematorium (her mother screaming as she watched her go; for unknown reasons, Tova’s group was sent back to their barracks); despite only being allowed to go to the bathroom twice per day (you’d be shot for more); despite falling into a toilet; and despite starving (“a hunger that words cannot describe”).
“I’ve had many miracles in my life, maybe because I am a witness,” she noted. “I am the voice of the 1.5 million children who died.”
As the Russians approached, Nazis began ramping up the killings. It was chaos until Tova and her mother were liberated from Birkenau on Jan. 27, 1945. “In Yiddish, my mother said, ‘They’re gone,’” referring to the Nazis.
Tova’s father survived Dachau, reuniting with Tova and her mother the following year. After several years with tuberculosis in a German sanatorium and Displaced Persons camps, Tova and her parents arrived in the U.S. when she was 12.
Tova earned a BA in psychology and a master’s in Black literature. She and her husband, Maier Friedman, immigrated to Israel, living there for over 10 years where she taught at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Returning to the U.S., she earned her master’s in social work, becoming the director of Jewish Family Service of Somerset and Warren Counties in New Jersey for over 20 years, where she still works as a therapist. She wrote her memoir, “The Daughter of Auschwitz.” Tova’s blessed with four children and eight grandchildren.
“When I speak, I remember the 1.5 million kids who aren’t here – it’s as if I’m putting a stone on their graves. When kids watch my stories on TikTok, they ask questions. It gives me hope,” Tova concluded. “It’s not just my story to tell – multiple it by 1.5 million.”
The Commemoration program ended with several meaningful, compelling moments. Lodz Ghetto survivor Sam Weinreich sang the “Ghetto Song,” second-generation survivor siblings David Winestone, Shelby Baum, and Rebecca Gerber recited Tehillim and Kaddish in memory of their father, Ted Winestone (OBM), Cantor Ricky Kampf chanted El Maleh Rachamim, and Rabbi Akiva Males offered a closing benediction, asking G-d to grant Tova strength to continue sharing her story.
Tova’s bravery and resiliency remind us of the importance of transmitting the legacy of the Holocaust to the next generation. To those we’ve lost and those proudly living with us, we will never forget the 6 million. Never again.
Winners of the 14th Annual Holocaust Art and Essay Contest were announced. 1st place essay went to Nadav Lowell, 11th grader at Cooper Yeshiva High School for Boys; 1st place art went to Kayla Lam, 7th grader at Colonial Middle School. The TN Holocaust Commission selected Mr. Jordan Bernardini as the 2023 Belz-Lipman Holocaust Educator Award winner. Mr. Bernardini is a Facing History & Ourselves teacher at Germantown High School and a member of the Facing History’s New Committee Fellowship.